Thursday, December 24, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez




Why I Read It: I've been a fan of Hobbits for three decades.

Summary: A biography of the master.

My Thoughts: Tolkien himself seems to have been quite an interesting character, somewhat stereotypical of the post-Victorian British society learned types, yet somehow deeply intriguing in his ability to lose himself in his own mind in a rigid world shaped by the harshness of two world wars.

I've read the classic Tolkien biography, by Humphrey Carpenter, and remember it as quite enlightening itself. I wondered what could be new with Duriez' assault on the topic. What I found was that it certainly fit the way that my mind works.

Duriez pieces together the life of the author and academic much in the way that others before him have, but expands his research, or his presentation of that research, to include the physical world that shaped Tolkien's mind. Throughout the book, references are made to the places on which Tolkien patterned his mythical landscapes, and the landmarks of his life. The photographs in the book are of those places - of the inspiration for the Two Towers, of the apartments and other homes in which he lived, and more. The book, more so than any other I've read on the master, gives us Tolkien historicity. We could almost design a Tolkien driving tour of England, to revisit the places that remain - and even those that don't - as inspiration highlights.

This book, more than others, also leads one to believe that Tolkien's life was one of fellowships. Although the direct connection is not so written, the fact is that from the T.C.B.S. to the Coalbiters to the Inklings, Tolkien surrounded himself with friends of differing strengths, and believed in the power of such fellowships. His first group, the T.C.B.S, even pledged to change the world for good, and then lost two of its four members in the First World War. Those dark days definitely shaped the future of Tolkien's writing career.

Duriez brings us a little different focus on the life of Tolkien, allowing us to see a little deeper into the mind of the master storyteller, and to appreciate his work just that much more.

One Breath by Adam Skolnick



Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine.

Summary: A freediver dies in competition, opening a world of questions about his sport.

My Thoughts: Once before I was forced into a reaction about a book's protagonist, and found that I flat out didn't like the guy. So here we go again.

The thing is that I find that it's all for the same reasons. Nick Mevoli may have been a hell of a guy, and according to many, many people quoted in the book about his life, he was. But I'll tell you what it was about him - only through the interpretation of his personality presented in this book - that completely turned me off.

Nick was a risk taker; no big deal there. The world is full of them. In fact, in today's world, many professional athletes have to lay aside risk of severe injury to play their sports (football players, boxers, etc.). That's not what turned me off to Nick.

Instead, it was his immaturity when things didn't go his way. We all feel frustration, and for someone driven as hard as Nick was, perhaps that frustration was harder to control when he came up short - I hardly think the word "fail" is appropriate, considering the incredible things he did - in his sport. But the descriptions of his tantrums in the water when that happened just push me to the point of dislike, from the safety and confines of the paper world of a book.

And so, the reading of this book is a second reflection on myself, and my reaction to its contents. The story of Everett Ruess, the young southwest wanderer who got himself killed despite the pleas of those around him to be safe was the first to get me angry at the hardheadedness of youth; and now Nick, who would not listen to his friends, is dead, pushing himself too far. So in the end, it's my anger at promising life snuffed out that drives my review of a book.

I wish Nick had lived to achieve the things he could have. Instead, he gave us a bright flash, and sent shockwaves through his sport of what can happen to its athletes. It's a sad fact, but true; Nick died for the future safety of others. Freediving is a sport in dire need of research into the limits of the human body's capabilities, and of codified safety procedures.

All puns aside, the book is an immersion into the world of freediving, its longer-than-you-think history, and its troubling present and future. Who knows, if you're more tolerant than me, you might even find Nick a martyr or a hero. I just wish he had heeded the advice of his friends and stuck around to tell his own story, rather than have it published posthumously at far too young an age.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Sea Mark by Russell M. Lawson




Why I Read It: Reviewed it for Sea History magazine for the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: A scrutinizing look at what John Smith, adventurer, said about his journey to New England in 1614, and not what critics have said since.

My Thoughts: John Smith certainly left a paper trail, but unfortunately, most of it was written with audiences in mind. His journals were meant for public consumption, for future funders to consider backing one of his excursions or his proposed settlements; for future adventurers to think about joining him in the New World; and for other men of what he believed to be his class to sweat when mulling their comparison to his manliness. He wrote with technical skill where needed, he grovelled before kings and princes when necessary, and, most of all he boasted.

Not every boast was self-directed. Smith boasted widely about the lands and waters of New England, beckoning others to come across the Atlantic and see for themselves the potential for fortunes to be made in fishing, whaling and mining. It must have been hard to sit by in England and not make at least one journey to the New World, for the adventurous spirited. I know that given the right circumstances, I might have been swayed.

Consider it! An entire continent of open space. We today try to find nooks and crannies of nature on which to walk for a half an hour (ask me about my books on the topic), and so it was in early seventeenth century London. There may have not been an environmentalist ethos in those days, but there was overcrowding. And plague. And pestilence. And lack of opportunity.

So, when we read his work, says author Russell Lawson, we should read his words only and take them for what they are. Critics have had 400 unfettered years to jab at him, and have piled on each others' words. Give John Smith a chance to speak for himself.

That said, try to think about a few things. He campaigned for the job that went to Myles Standish, to be the military escort of the Pilgrims in 1620. How different a world would that have been? Would relations with the Native American have been different at the start, with Smith already having years of good rapport? Consider the depths to which he had explored the New England region. If he had been on the journey to Boston Harbor in 1621, he would have been going back to Boston Harbor. But the Pilgrims turned him down for a military man who came with less personal fanfare.

Then again, there is the skirmish with the natives at what became the town of Cohasset, north of Plymouth. Lawson reports on the confrontation and says that there were no casualties; locals have always believed that Smith's men killed one of the Natives attacking them on the way out of the harbor. As Lawson states, Smith was a violent man in a violent age.

Lawson's book reopens the story of  John Smith in New England by starting us back at page 1. We see the rocky coast of Maine through only Smith's eyes, and live only in his world. We are not jaded by what naysayers, both contemporary and modern, have had to say. It's a refreshing way to look at an four century old tale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream by Dusty Rhodes with Howard Brody




Why I Read It: I've been kind of stuck on memory lane, reliving my childhood, all the way down to Saturday morning television.

Summary: The life and times of one of pro wrestling's unlikeliest heroes.

My Thoughts: I took two things away from this book. Dusty Rhodes had a huge ego, but he balanced it with a self-deprecation that sprang from his own awareness of that ego. Second, there was an overall sadness to the book that stemmed from the fact that late in life Dusty lived in the past and couldn't shake it.

But what a fun ride.

Dusty's career spanned the 1960s to the 2000s, and as such he crossed paths with all the greats of the last half century. He moved from the territorial era to the modern day in which the industry is generally controlled by one man. He likened the old system to one run by the mafia - an idea I've since seen echoed on a film about World Class Championship Wrestling. Each local boss was a don, and you didn't cross him whatever you did. Ironically, a second theme - itinerant wrestlers being screwed out of money by local promoters - was echoed in a book I read by a stand-up comedian who lived the same sort of travel-by-day, perform-by-night life. Perhaps it was his simple upbringing in Austin, Texas (a place of dusty roads) or maybe that early struggle to collect what was owed to him, but Dusty definitely sticks to the theme of money throughout the book.

The most beautiful aspect of this book for me is the voice, and I don't mean that in the traditional artsy way of an author searching for one. Dusty had his speech patterns and mannerisms (and his lisp) that made you know, without even seeing the screen, that you were tuned into the right place. His voice was unmistakable. And so it was in this book. I could hear his words as if they were coming directly out of his mouth. It made the book fly. One line has stuck with me, making me giggle every time I think of it, but I can't repeat it here because of a few words in the sentence. It was just so Dusty.

Dusty Rhodes came, too, with a blurred racial story. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood, where the upbringing meant that race meant nothing to him; people were just people. He picked up a lot of African-American mannerisms that stayed with him throughout his career. It was something lost on me at the time, but I understand it now. In order to mock him, Vince McMahon, Jr., took a white wrestler known as the One Man Gang and turned him into a mumu-wearing "African Dream." When Ted DiBiase needed a "valet" to go with his "Million Dollar Man" gimmick, Vince assigned a black wrestler he named Virgil - as in Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., Dusty's real name. When Virgil went to the rival company, WCW, he became Vincent.

Aside from the frustrations of an aging wrestler seeing his era pass, and once you get past the obvious ego issues, Dusty's recounting of his life is filled with love and good times. The man knew how to party and to just generally have fun. He makes outrageous claims throughout the book about his escapades that are supported by quotes from others involved in the episodes. His carriage race with Andre the Giant must have been a sight to see, two gigantic men with humongous afros dueling their way down a New York City street. One of my favorites is from Mike Graham, a Florida wrestler who took Dusty out on a boat. He instructed Dusty to hop off the bow and carry the anchor up the beach so they could ground the boat, and Dusty jumped too early. Sinking to the bottom, he turned and marched out of the water and up the beach, still clutching the anchor and without losing his baseball hat and cigar. Turning, he said, "Damn, is that really what you wanted me to do?"

There are touching aspects to the book as well, especially as they concern his family and his relationship with his son Dustin. If nothing else, Dusty lays it all out in this book, and doesn't mince words. And his legacy lives on, through his sons Dustin ("Goldust") and Cody ("Stardust").

Reading this book, one gets the notion that despite the odds, being born the plumber's son, digging ditches to earn his first wages, Dusty Rhodes laughed his way through life, like I laughed my way through his book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Foxcatcher by Mark Schultz with David Thomas




Why I Read It: I was an amateur wrestler.

Summary: The story of the rise to prominence of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, and Dave's murder, all seen through the eyes of Mark.

My Thoughts: The year that Mark won his gold medal at the Olympics, I was an amateur wrestler. My career was brief, really just that one year as a Bulldog 157 at Rockland (MA) High School, but I still carry the highs and lows of that year with me wherever I go.

I wish I could say the Schultz brothers inspired me in some way, but I was too obsessed with other things happening in my life at that point, including my parents' divorce. In all honesty, my dad encouraged me to get involved with the sport, knowing I was a budding pro wrestling fan. He wanted me to see what wrestling, not "rasslin'," as he would say in an over-pronounced way, was all about. I loved the sport, the teamwork and the league championship that our varsity won that year. And I did more than hold my own against my opponents, some of whom I remember to this day, 31 years later.

It's always odd to me to consider where I was in my life when other events in other people's lives were playing out.

There's a strange wall that goes up when we consider our Olympic heroes. We tend to see them on stage, on TV, geared up with all the sponsored equipment from their chosen sports, and see dollar signs. The Schultz brothers story flips that imagery on its head. At least for the wrestlers, support was always minimal. Life was tough. As a non-revenue college sport (when compared to football, for instance), it never translated into big dollars after NCAA eligibility ended. While outstanding wrestlers could still compete on the national and world stages after college, the best jobs they could hope for in the sport were coaching gigs at the diminishing number of universities that hadn't canned their programs in the face of Title IX. A few of the bigger amateur wrestlers could go pro - Steve Williams, a teammate of Dave and Mark became "Dr. Death" to a generation of fans - but going "pro" in wrestling is not the same as going pro in football or baseball. In 2013, the IOC announced wrestling was done as an Olympic sport, only to reinstate it seven months later. It all had to do with its money-generating capabilities.

Faced with these financial barriers, Mark and Dave put up with a lot to follow their passion when they signed on with John du Pont's Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont's madness is a central theme of the book, and is somewhat parallel to the madness of King George. Du Pont's money and fame bought him any indiscretions he wanted, save for murder.

One of saddest aspects of this book, apart from the obvious one, is Mark's personal history of distrust for his fellow human beings. There were undoubtedly people in his past who had his best interests at heart, but whom he targeted as enemies. It worked for him; it fueled his fire and got him three world championships. But one wonders if he could have found his inner peace, the stability he craved so much, had he just let down his guard a little.

I hope he's found his peace.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

When the Balls Drop by Brad Garrett


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Why I Read It: I'm a huge Everybody Loves Raymond fan, and I loved what Brad Garrett brought to the show

Summary: Half the book is biographical, half the book is opinion; from the start, all of it pushes the envelope.

My Thoughts: If you've ever watched a stand-up comedian on Comedy Central and thought, "That guy's pretty funny - I'd like to see him live," then you know what I'm talking about here. There are actually two comedians per performer: TV and live.

On TV, they are observational, witty and cleanly funny. Live, they are foul-mouthed and fixated on topics they know are edgy, or, as Hawkeye Pierce once said on M*A*S*H, "over-the-edgy." Sex, drugs, race, everything is on the table for discussion.

In other words, if you came to this book looking to find "Robert Barone, New York City Police Department," you will be surprised to find he's not here. This is Brad Garrett, the stand-up comic.

The author does a wonderful job of telling the story of how he got to this point in his career, from local stages to his first Tonight Show appearances (although he doesn't mention that he was the voice of Hulk Hogan on the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which is how as a 13-year-old I first heard his voice!). He walks us through his days of running with the Rat Pack, or at least opening for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, and occasionally being invited in for pizza after the shows.

Mostly, though, the book is about Brad's tackling of midlife. I stop short of calling it a crisis, because that's the point of his book; he thinks he has it figured out, and is telling all the men reading his book his plan for beating it: get a pre-nup, marry a 31-year-old and if you have an opinion, let it fly.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker

Why I Read It: I already knew all the players.

Summary: The common theme is early death, the repeating story of the American professional wrestler's life.

My Thoughts: I'm torn over whether or not professional wrestling needs this quality prose. But then, professional wrestling exists in two realms, real and fantasy. The fantasy side, at its best, is certainly worthy of the best words we can throw at it. When we suspend disbelief (and the author, David Shoemaker, tends to believe we've been doing that for longer than we let on) and we let the story play out, we cheer and jeer, we live the story along with the characters on stage.

At its worst, outside of the ring and backstage, the drugs flow, the steroids pump through the veins; murder has even occurred. The people we root onto victory in the fantasy world are can either match their stage personalities or be diametrically opposed to them. Heroes are villains and vice versa; we can't trust what we see in the squared circle. Sometimes, like the square peg in the round hole, the character does not always fit the wrestler.

Shoemaker's book features numerous dead wrestlers who passed before their time. Many fell around the same time, when drugs overwhelmed the sport. At that time, I was being weaned from watching it regularly, but the news still made it my way. Kerry Von Erich was dead. Really, another Von Erich, so young? Junkyard Dog was in a car accident. Andre the Giant was finally overcome by his acromegaly. They seemed to fall like flies.

Shoemaker weaves the greater themes of American history into the narrative - race, family, geopolitics etc. - and brings us to a closer look at what we saw flash before our eyes in the arenas and on TV, an extended video review of the matches we saw live. We all "knew" that a head butt from a black wrestler or a Pacific Islander was more painful than one from a white man. Why? An overhead chop from a Native American Chief (whether or not he was an Italian named Joe from New Jersey) hurt more than one from an Italian named Joe from New Jersey. Why? The author walks us through the past that made this bizarre world come into reality.

In a way, for me, the look back through time was eye-opening. In at least one instance, I can say that I was there. One chapter tells the tale of the "Macho Man" Randy Savage, pinning his winning of the WWF Intercontinental Championship from Tito Santana at the Boston Garden as a seminal moment in his career. The fans cheered that night as if Hulk Hogan had won; Macho Man was the heel, but the power of seeing a title change, of seeing the new guard take out the old, of seeing history (scripted or not) right before our eyes, was powerful enough to make us root for the dark side.

Yes, morbid curiosity drew me to this book. Although "life" appears in the title, the book is predominantly about death.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rebel League by Ed Willes



Why I Read It: I was on skates at 3.

Summary: "The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: I wish I was there.

Unfortunately, I was born just too late to truly appreciate the beauty of the WHA. It closed up shop when I was 8. As far as I knew when I started watching professional hockey religiously, the Hartford Whalers had just always been a part of the NHL. I had no idea that they had just merged into the league, or that they had been part of the upstart movement that was the WHA.

After reading this book, I'm left to wonder what impact a TV contract would have had on the league. Without it, the league still pulled in thousands of fans per game, somewhat akin to what Major League Lacrosse teams bring in today, perhaps a little higher on average. Had they had television in the markets where they played, outlying cities the NHL had not yet touched, like Houston, Quebec City and Winnipeg, and had they been able to deliver some of the one-of-a-kind entertainment that league provided, would they have drawn bigger crowds, increased their revenue and had a longer run?

So much of the reason for the league's existence was to buck the establishment, to free the players, and in essence, the fans. The NHL had its system. The rich got richer and the players got beat up, financially. The WHA imported the best European players and drafted kids considered "underage" by the NHL. They had started to create a greater product than the NHL was willing to produce. In time, it would have proven to be the more entertaining league (if it wasn't already by 1970s standards) and therefore would have grown.

It was, for instance, the league where Wayne Gretzky got his professional career started, and Gordie Howe played hockey with his two sons. It was where Bobby Hull made his last stand, reinvigorated by the arrival of two European players who helped revolutionize the North American game.

It was also the home of the players that would inspire the movie Slapshot, not to mention the harbor of refuge of some of the world's wackiest goalies. One claimed he was living several lives at once, essentially unstuck in time like the main character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

So yes, I wish I had seen it rolled out, though I wonder if I would have paid any more attention to it than I did the USFL or the XFL. Today, with the constant informational assault under which we daily stand, my guess is no. But in the '70s, in a town that didn't have an NHL club? I bet you I would have. And I'll tell you one thing - had the league had Ed Willes writing about it during its heyday, they would have had something else great going for them. If you get hockey, you will openly laugh at the story of the league as told through his words.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert




Why I Read It: A continuing fascination with the history of professional wrestling.

Summary: "The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: There's a belief out there (a cheap way of saying that I don't remember where I read it or heard it first, but I know I didn't make it up) that says that in whatever age you became a fan of a particular sport, you consider that the "golden age" of that sport. For instance, if you were a Yankees fan in the '50s, in the '70s you looked back with wistful reverence at Mantle, DiMaggio and the gang. You probably don't like the designated hitter rule, free agency, etc.

I used to think that I was stuck that way as well, but I think my broad perspective as a historian has steered me clear of such pitfalls. But, in a weird way I long for the old days that happened before what should have been my golden ages.

Let me explain.

I was 12 when Hulk Hogan ran over the Iron Sheik and took the WWF title.I witnessed the beginning of the end, when professional wrestling's territorial system broke down and Vince McMahon's monopolistic machine ran roughshod over North America. One day I was in my living room watching the Grand Wizard lead Sgt. Slaughter down to a little television studio ring in Connecticut to put the cobra clutch on Salvatore Bellomo and the next I was tuned in to Wrestlemania with millions of other people.

But get this - I miss what happened before those days. And this book just fuels that fire.

In those pre-Hulkamania days, wrestling was local. We had the northeast, Stamford, Connecticut, based territory, which was, incidentally, the old WWF. We also received broadcasts from Dallas, Texas, but the worlds were one hundred percent separate. There was no way in hell that Kerry Von Erich would ever wrestle "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. No way, no how, never, ever. Neither organization admitted the other existed, at least not on the air. In those days, pre-cable, pre-internet, you could do that. And so, in that way, Montreal was a territory unto itself.

It was a beautiful thing. You could build a storyline without having to rely on facts. A wrestler could come in from the outside and start fresh, or with a backstory of having terrorized some other part of the world, and barely anybody would care to check; you suspended your disbelief, whether you thought it was all real or not. Wrestlers changed names, gimmicks, gear and nobody ran reports to expose who they were in former lives.

But the amazing thing about the wrestling world is its transitory nature. Wrestlers did move, from territory to territory as storylines or drawing power ran out. And because so many of them had long careers, coming in and out of "retirement" into their 70s, for some, they bumped into each other all over the continent and the globe. As such, any singular territory was a crossing ground. Montreal was such a place. The best wrestlers in the world moved through, or stayed permanently: Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, Hulk Hogan and more.

Montreal, too, was a proving ground. Many of the world's best known wrestlers of the '50s through the '80s were born and bred in the area, men like the Vachons, the Martels and the Rougeaus. This book shows how they started local, made their marks elsewhere and returned to continue the long legacy of professional wrestling in the province of Quebec. In short, while this book is about wrestling in Montreal, it is full of familiar names. If you watched the WWF in the late 1970s, you will now get the rest of the story of who Dino Bravo was before he headed south for Connecticut, and learn that Rick Martel had a brother who wrestled, too. Moreover, you will learn that the Rougeaus, who we in the '80s knew as Jacques and Raymond, were, and are, just one generation of Montreal's dynastic wrestling family.

Wrestling has more or less come and gone for Montreal. Its heyday is definitely over, though there are still points of pride, like Kevin Steen, now known as Kevin Owens, the current WWE Intercontinental champion, born in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, and there will always be the start-up indy organization that can never compete with the WWE. But it has a glorious past, one that I miss, even though I wasn't there.

The authors bring the book forward through time and fill each chapter with mini biographies of the many wrestlers, Quebec-born and non-Quebecers, who made the scene great. There are comical moments, like when the Chicago area promoters first get a glimpse of Jean Ferre, and immediately change his name. "In Montreal you're calling him Giant Fairy?" And so, Andre the Giant was reborn. The format lends itself to repetition of information, but it's worth it once one is engrossed. It reinforces the melting pot history of the territory, and of professional wrestling in general.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien




Why I Read It: Correction - re-read it.

Summary: The quest to regain a homeland is complicated by competition between several races of beings in Middle-Earth.

My Thoughts: For some reason, I had forgotten how much of a hero Bilbo actually is.

I guess that when you read something at 13 and then read it again three decades later, things change. My broader view of the world in my 40s definitely impacted the way I viewed this book this time around, though I have to admit that I have trouble pulling myself away from thoughts of World War I when thinking deeply about this tale. It just seems too symmetrical when the Battle of the Five Armies finally breaks out in the end, and the flying force of eagles swoops in at the last second to save the day. But that's a whole different topic of discussion.

As much as I had misremembered Bilbo's level of heroism, I also had overplayed in my mind the role that Smeagol played. Perhaps I've got the stories jumbled, but I kept waiting for him to come back into the tale. Perhaps, so, too, did Tolkien. His story seems like such an open, unfinished portion of this book, that it only makes sense that his trail is picked up again in the Lord of the Rings series. Maybe the scenes of the early animated movie representation of the book stuck with me in a major way, influencing the way I've always thought about this tale. I know I expected more dwarves to die in the end, and that is a direct result of the first movie. I can still see the "camera" panning over the wounded warriors after the battle.

I think what I love best about the story is the level of mystery with which Tolkien taunts us, particularly regarding the life of Gandalf. He comes and goes, and for much of the book is dealing with "other business" in a separate, vaguely-defined world. He doesn't care to let the adventuring party know exactly what it is he is doing and where, and they don't press him on it; they know they shouldn't. His stiffness and brook-no-interference attitude lends a bit of subtle comedy to a book that is otherwise engrossing for its pure fantasy aspects. (There was, of course, the blatant joke about the founding of golf! Beyond that, the humor is masterfully masked within the personalities of the characters).

Tolkien excels at placing his characters in binds, and figuring out how to have the smallest and supposedly meekest and least-equipped character pry them free in believable ways. While we are supposed to carry with us a suspension of disbelief anyway when we read SciFi and Fantasy, if things get too far-fetched from what we consider humanly possible an author will lose us. Tolkien never does.

We end with triumph and tragedy, and must accept the latter with the former. It's something American audiences are only now starting to accept. As isolationist as many of us believe we are - does the average American really know what's happening in the world? - we have begun to see that the good guys do not always win and that sometimes victory is tainted with unexpected loss.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Writing by Stephen King



Why I Read It: Recommended by m brother-in-law, a fellow writer.

Summary: Stephen King tells us how he began writing, what he avoids, what he has in his writer's toolbox, and all about the accident that nearly took his life.

My Thoughts: Stephen King can make my skin crawl writing about himself.

I have, like many Americans, a long term relationship with Mr. King. My dad and I decided to read one of his books concomitantly, planning to share our thoughts after the last page had been turned. We loved it. I went to college to a heavy workload, studying to be the historian I am today; my dad went into the winter as a hibernating landscaper, reading everything he could get his hands on. The books I couldn't read because I was thrust deeply into the worlds of the Renaissance and the Early Roman Empire, my dad practically read to me over the phone.

Now, two decades later, my dad gone, Mr. King and I meet again, yet on a more professional course. And I find, amazingly, we have much in common.

No, I am not making millions, and no, I haven't even dabbled in fiction - yet. But we share a passion that he describes artfully, the simple joy of letting words flow from our minds onto the page. We write.

More than that, we share the art of the writer. In this book he definitively tells us all to read if we want to write, and to become obsessive about it if we want to succeed. I'm there. I never leave the house without a book in my hands. Heck, I bring one to bed and carry it around the house with me all day. He instructs us to read in long lines at turnpike tollbooths; I can do him one better. I read at stop signs if there are cars stretching out into the distance. I guess in a way it's validation. I can now point to Stephen King and say to my wife, "See? If he says it's what I should do..."

Even so, he surprised me with some original thoughts about writing that I will take to heart. My first slap-in-the-face lessons came from a college professor, who in one corrected paper on the life of King Henry V of England changed my life. This book is along the same revelatory route. King dropped a few "Eurekas" on me, making me look at writing from new perspectives.

And as exciting as that is for me, as I read the book I couldn't help thinking about my dad and how much he would have loved it, how learning about where the ideas originated for some of my dad's favorite King tales would have made him laugh out loud. And it would have led to phone calls, and laughter on my end of the line.

As much as King makes me squirm, he makes me laugh. His no-nonsense, downeast Maine personality shines through this book in a way I wasn't expecting. In a way, I hate admitting to my brother-in-law that I've finished reading it, as that means I have to give it back.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy




Why I Read It: This season, reading about the Red Sox was better than watching them.

Summary: A bio of the Red Sox manager, focused on the years 2004-2011.

My Thoughts: For a long time, I couldn't stand Dan Shaughnessy. I always felt like he was that smarmy, needle-nosed kid in high school who had to point out that you did your math homework wrong, or that you had used the wrong version of to, too or two. Many of his article themes in the Boston Globe seemed to be prying, making more out of minor little topics than they really needed to be.

But Dan (Boston sports fans who follow the literary side have lived with him as part of their community for about three decades now; the first name feels appropriate, though there are many that call him simply "Shaughnessy") grew on me with this book. Perhaps he has softened with age. Perhaps I have. But there was one key to that change for me.

Dan has a long-running feud with pitcher Curt Schilling when he was in town, the two often at odds on many topics. It would have been very easy for Dan to take shots at Curt in this book, but he didn't. He treated him very fairly, even praising his pitching performances when warranted (as I'm sure he would say one should). I have a personal reason for standing in defense of Curt, and will always look to him with respect. I was heartened by the even presentation of Curt's ups and downs, flaws and successes, as they related to Francona's time in Boston.

As to the main content of the book, it was fabulous, bringing truth (at least as seen by one set of eyes, Francona's) to many of the longstanding stories around the rise and fall of the Red Sox. I'm sure there are plenty of points in the book to which Red Sox ownership might point with a furrowed brow and a shake of the head, but until that happens, I'm happy to have read these pages.

The Red Sox went on a pretty damn good run with Terry Francona at the helm. The team applied new game day prep strategies to get the edge they needed, and sometimes different divisions within the team (baseball ops, field staff, ownership) found themselves at odds with one another as to what was appropriate and what was just too much. Somehow, with too many cooks, this kitchen served up two World Series championships in four years.

This story, though, digs deeper than the Red Sox and into the life of the manager, openly exposing his personality (as if after eight years with the Sox he had anything left to hide) and sharing his brightest and darkest moments. It details, too, how insular the baseball world is, the ways in which the constant shuffling of players and coaches from city to city from year to year causes paths to cross numerous times in the sporting life. Being second generation, having grown up in clubhouses, Terry Francona has a network almost second to none. There are very few degrees of separation between him and most of today's Major League Baseball players.

A bonus is the in-depth reporting on the general manager at the time, Theo Epstein, and the story of his relationship with Francona. Having parted ways with the Sox shortly after Francona, Epstein lets his opinions fly as well.

I'm trying to place this book in the pantheon of "best baseball books I've ever read," and can say it's right up there at or near the top. I'm not sure exactly where it falls, but, wow, was this one fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler





Why I Read It: On a baseball kick, and the year the book covers was one of the first I remember.

Summary: "1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" (the subtitle)

My Thoughts: As a kid, I knew that folks around me had a distaste for New York City. Yes, there was a particular Boston bias that festered around the sports world, about the Yankees, the Rangers and Knicks, but it ran deeper than that. New York City wasn't safe, in the sweeping, all-encompassing sense of the word.

This book has helped me understand why all the adults I knew felt that way. I've since come to love New York City for what it is and what it represents on the grand American scale, though I will be honest. I can't stand the traffic. Heading south from New England either means sitting in it or driving around it. We're bottle-necked up here, but then, New Englanders are like many other people on the planet who see their little corners of the world as the "most estimable place" on earth, to quote Thoreau. Perhaps we don't mind.

What an amazing year 1977 was for New York City. Bella Abzug, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo were all competing for the mayor's seat. A single night without power led to millions of dollars' worth of looting that set the city on edge. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, finally came to justice, telling the world that his neighbor's dog told him to kill. Add to this mix George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees' newest purchase, Reggie Jackson.

I remember the three home runs against the Dodgers in the single game in the World Series. I remember all the other names involved with the Yankees that season - Rivers, Randolph, Guidry, Hunter, etc. (heck, they were all on my baseball cards) - and even remember listening to one game mentioned in the text, blanket pulled up over my head, radio pinned close to my ear so my mother wouldn't hear. Gator Guidry struck out the first three Red Sox batters in succession on ten or eleven pitches to the rousing - and what I remember sounding pretty belligerently scary to a six-year-old - cheers of the Yankee Stadium crowd.

What I didn't know at six was the undercurrent. I had no idea what "race" even meant in those days unless used with qualifiers such as "three-legged" or "motorcycle." I knew Reggie Jackson as a ridiculously powerful left-handed hitter; I did not know he felt he was feeling the strain of being the first black superstar to wear pinstripes. I had no concept that elections could swing one way or the other based on how a person stood on issues that pertained to the needs of a community of people with different color skin. I was clueless, as a six-year-old probably should be. We grow up soon enough.

Their is bliss in ignorance, for sure, and I probably could have gone my whole life just remembering 1977 as the Year of Reggie, but I am so glad I read this book, as Reggie is now in context for me.

I love when things are in context.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Game by Ken Dryden




Why I Read It: Got the bug for a good hockey book, and this one came highly recommended.

Summary: Ken Dryden walks us through the last days of his NHL career, with an amazing perspective on the game, its players and the way they've both changed through time.

My Thoughts: Having grown up in the hockey boom in the northeastern United States, when Bobby Orr was king, I've always loved the sport. I played on the street, I played in rinks, I played right up into high school before an odd, ancient injury pulled me from competing with the pack out on the ice. My dad never played, but instead coached, on a very high level, with the 1980 junior Olympians.

I grew up in the Boston area, so hockey life was Bruins life. The Canadiens were the enemy, the Yankees to our Red Sox. I might not have ready this book twenty years ago. But now I'm older, wiser. I have perspective. I only hope someday to have the amazing breadth of perspective that Dryden does.

Dryden shared the same youth I did. A ball, some sticks, a bunch of kids and a net, and it didn't matter where we were, a hockey game could break out at any moment. We even brought our Italian exchange students into the mix one summer. We had to. They were here, and we had to play hockey. We couldn't just stop for three weeks because they were here. When we went to Siracusa, we played soccer, because they had to.

It was all-consuming, for him and me. But he had the skill to go to the top. His teams, with him in net, won six Stanley Cups in eight years, a remarkable achievement. They were the Yankees of the '50s, the Celtics of the '60s. After that, he burned out on the sport, packed it in and walked away. Next came time for reflection, and reflect he did. In this book - touted as the best sports book ever written solely by an athlete - he speaks openly and freely about fame, about fans and about owners. He shoots straight on how he believes yesterday's superstar athletes would fare today, and on how the Canadiens "got up" for games against the Bruins. A good opponent made the game worth playing. This fact, for me, was a wonderful revelation. Sports talk radio hosts in Boston love to downplay rivalries, saying that teams like the Canadiens don't care about the Bruins when they are at the top, that they see them as just another team on the schedule. Dryden says otherwise.

In the end, it's "the game" - not hockey, but whatever sport one ties himself or herself to for life - that is the subject of the book. It's the whole lifestyle that comes with it, the locker room, the personalities, the travel, the ups and downs. For Dryden, the sport was hockey. The game was much more.

In this edition, the 20th anniversary, he adds another chapter on life after hockey, with a fantastic review of where hockey has gone globally since he stepped off the ice. His perspective, as stated, is grand, the text magnificently written. Having lived with hockey my whole life, I've watched it change, but never really stopped to truly look at how. It has blended through time, one phase melding into the next, but it is certainly not the same game I started with four decades ago.

I went looking for a great hockey book, and I found it.

(Extra note - there is a quick, really-not-noteworthy mention of my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, in the book. He mentions it in relation to landing at Logan Airport in Boston. It has no bearing on the story in any way, but it was certainly a strange moment reading the book and seeing the name of the town in lights in this way!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl




Why I Read It: Needed a small paperback to keep in my pocket while waiting; found it in the boxes in the garage.

Summary: The author has a theory and carries out an experiment to attempt to prove it.

My Thoughts: This may be one of the most remarkable adventures undertaken in the name of anthropology of all-time.

Heyerdahl's theory, in a nutshell, is that the islands of the South Seas were populated by ancient people who had sailed the Pacific currents from the western coast of South America on balsa rafts. But when he tried to promote the theory, he was told it was impossible, that despite the overwhelming evidence of linkages between the people of modern-day Peru and the people of the South Seas, there was just no way that a balsa raft could survive the trek across the Pacific.

So, he decided to try it. He gathered friends who, like him, had survived World War II, men who had fought underground, behind enemy lines, made makeshift radios, and had done anything to stay alive. He knew that if anybody would be up for the challenge, it would be this crew.

They gathered materials, with the help of several governments, built their raft and hit the open ocean.

Among my favorite parts of the book are the interactions with wildlife, such as the whale shark that visited them, and the flying fish that constantly leaped on deck. What an odd and sad turn of events for that fish. Imagine all the work that went into the development of the defense mechanism over thousands of years. The species learned to propel themselves out of the water in order to avoid predators, or at least throw them off their track. And for thousands of years, as far as we know, it worked. Then, along came men, and boats. Suddenly the fish flew away from their enemies into the hands of those with just as much hunger in their bellies. The fact that the fish landed on the Kon-Tiki helped prove Heyerdahl's theory. Food from the sea was abundant and easily gathered during this mid-20th century journey; in earlier times, before factory ships and overfishing, it must have been more so.

One of the lingering feelings I get about this book is that in some way it had to be an inspiration for Gilligan's Island (there was a 1930s movie that definitely resembled the idea, with a handful of people of different backgrounds stranded on an island). The story may just have been tucked in the back of Sherwood Schwartz's mind as he was creating the show a few years later, but it feels like it was there. America had a growing love affair with Polynesia at the time. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines had visited the islands, had eaten the foods and generally fallen for the culture. The 1950s saw the great rise of tiki restaurants in America. By the time the Gilligan showed his face the first time in the early 1960s, South Pacific had been presented as both a Broadway play (1949) and a movie (1958), taken directly from a James Michener collection of stories.

I may be way off with my theory, but if you read Kon-Tiki, you will understand how spot on Heyerdahl was with his.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson





Why I Read It: Pulled from the Amazon Vine line-up. Shipwreck books are usually of great interest for me, with my background in maritime history.

Summary: A team of divers set out to find a treasure ship, then switches course to look for a pirate ship.

My Thoughts: I met John Chatterton, one of the main characters in the book. He has no reason to remember me. He was filming an episode of Deep Sea Detectives for the History Channel in Boston Harbor and the Coast Guard invited me out onto the water with them as he and his on-screen partner read their lines. I stood by and watched from behind the camera on the top deck of a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

The book carries an interesting narrative, even if I find fault with one main issue. The ancient pirate whom they - divers John Chatterton and John Mattera - chase is over-inflated in historical importance. If Joseph Bannister was as notorious in the pantheon of pirates as the author professes he is, wouldn't we have heard of him by now?

In his defense (the pirate's), he pulled a badass move, for sure. He turned from regular seagoing merchant to pirate and forced a showdown with the Royal Navy that left the latter in retreat. His story is certainly interesting, now that it has been dusted off, but does he belong, as the author states, with William Kidd and Blackbeard?

We are treated with views into the lives of the two divers. John Chatterton is a Vietnam vet who took battlefield chances others would not, a medic who ran through enemy fire to retrieve his wounded comrades. John Mattera grew up with New York mob ties and his own entrepreneurial illegitimate businesses, until turning to police work and ultimately his own protection agency. They find their common ground in diving work.

The story brings us through their journey, from the moment they decide to abandon a treasure ship search to find a pirate ship instead to the ultimate successful conclusion of that search. The journey includes all sorts of side adventures, from gun play in the streets of the Dominican Republic to quiet moments of discovery in Spanish archives.

The story is oozing with bravado and machismo, both modern and historical. And it moves well, as the divers seek to read the mind of their 17th century prey, Bannister. If they find him, mentally, and understand how he thought, they find the ship.

If you pick it up, read it like an adventure novel, and you won't be disappointed.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger






Why I Read It: I think technically it's illegal to be American and not read it.

Summary: Teenager Holden Caulfield is booted out of yet another school and finds his way home, stalling for a few days to arrive about the same time as the letter he expects is being sent to his parents.

My Thoughts: I knew him.

I couldn't believe when I started reading the text how much Holden Caulfield, who narrates his story directly to us, sounds exactly like a great uncle of mine, one who was born about the same time as the character. The ego, the disdain for everybody else, what they do and how they do it, it was all there. Even specific repeated words and phrases - phony, hot shot, etc. - were words I heard every day from my uncle. Having heard the language before, I couldn't put it down.

Our protagonist is kicked out of prep school and sent packing. He could never focus on his studies, save for his English. Instead, he spends his time scrutinizing everybody in the world around him, finding them all to be phonies or bastards, to use his words. He holds respect for a bare few, his younger sister and his dead younger brother among them. The book is one long complaint, as he wanders home into New York City, looking down his nose in his twisted illogical way at every person he meets.

The problem with Holden is that he doesn't know when to stop, when to let his thoughts be thoughts and not leave his mouth. Numerous times while reading the book I found myself thinking, "No, Holden, don't say it!" or disbelieving that he had used specific words in specific situations. He is unfiltered, and it costs him time and again.

He is certainly contemptible, in need of intervention-style learning moments. But he has a soft side.

He has a surprising altruistic streak. In one of his many encounters with random people - a pimping hotel elevator operator, young women visiting the city from Seattle, administrators at his old elementary school - he meets two nuns coming to teach at a school in the city. He offers them $10 for their charity and indulges them in conversation. His ultimate dream, even beyond the twice expressed goal of running away to a place way out west, or up in New England, away from all people, is to save children from hurting themselves. He wants to help, in many ways, but can't get out of his own way.

Holden is disillusioned with adulthood, yet is struggling with getting there and trying it out for himself. He talks big about sex, and then when it is practically forced onto him by a prostitute he somewhat mistakenly solicits, he can't follow through and announces that despite his boasts, he's a virgin. He talks his way into a couple of beatings. He generalizes, constantly. He lets the actions of one person represent entire classes of people: the elderly, teachers, guys who visit his room at school, etc. He instructs us on why we should dislike just about everybody.

It must have been wonderful to read this book when it was thoroughly controversial across the United States, in simpler times when even just the language was enough to initiate book burning parties. But it was certainly wonderful to read it now, nearly 60 years after its release.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl





Why I Read It: Another "find" in a box I had dusted off. It had long been on the list.

Summary: The introduction of logotherapy told in two parts, a description of the practice preceded with the author's memoir of life in Nazi concentration camps.

My Thoughts: I often wonder how people a hundred years from now will react to stories of the Holocaust. Will it be diluted through time? We are just now losing the last of the "greatest generation," so that means that I have lived among them for nearly half a century. The people of World War II have always been a part of my life.

I guess that's why the stories have always affected me so deeply. People of my grandparents' vintage were among those gassed or otherwise atrociously treated. And when it came to such levels of understanding, it probably helped to grow up in a town with a strong Jewish population.

But Frankl's memoir struck me if just in two sentences. I guess at this point I have no expectations for how low the Nazis could sink; the depths of their cruelty no longer shock me. But Frankl made one statement that jumped out at me. He mentioned how life in the camps was the ultimate game of survival, and that in many cases, the good guys, the men and women who thought of others first, lost. In his words, it wasn't the best among them who survived the ordeal. I think I've always just believed that the prisoners in the concentration camps had no free will whatsoever, but Frankl's book changed my viewpoint on that idea. Some men and women went to great lengths to survive, often at the expense of others.

The second sentence that got me presented me with a physical reality that just struck a chord. He talked about being so weak that to take a step up into a building he had to put his hands inside the doorway and pull himself in. We've all seen the pictures of the gauntness of the concentration camp prisoner. But I guess that that's it; they're still pictures. I never thought too much of what it must have been like to try to do the simplest tasks.

I wasn't as impressed with the second half of the book, but it's not for me to really tear it down. The fact that any man or woman was able to survive the ordeal and think so deeply about the psychiatric side of concentration camp life - of the prisoners, of the guards, of the liberators, etc. - is amazing. To have gained the attention of so many millions and tell the tales as Frankl did, is astounding.

For me, personally, the timing was odd, too. The last line in the book (1984 edition) has to do with Hiroshima, which was the subject of the book I had just put down before picking this one up. I guess, in the end, as long as texts like this one survive, perhaps there will be less dilution than I fear. If we are supposed to learn from history, this is one lesson we should never forget.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Hiroshima by John Hersey




Why I Read It: World War II history is always on the table; was going through a box of old books and decided to pull it out and read it.

Summary: The author follows the stories of six people caught in the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, told in four parts.

My Thoughts: Having not been there, it's hard for me to say on what side of the coin I would have fallen. I can say today whether or not I would have supported the dropping of the bomb, but having not been alive and in the United States in 1945, I cannot say how I would have felt at the moment. Of course, most Americans weren't in on the debate anyway.

And I'm guessing that even in the immediate aftermath, there was little American sympathy for the Japanese civilians killed in the blast. With the press filtered as it was in those days, average Joe probably had little knowledge of the truth as it was. Then, too, after four years of war, bloodshed, rumored atrocities and the revelation of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, there must have been a general numbness to death in distant lands.

But to the first-time reader in 2015, there is no such distancing.

The first-person descriptions offered by Hersey from the mouths of his interview subjects are jarring. Descriptions of physical impacts are as heartbreaking as the psychological crashes, like the tale of the woman who held onto her dead baby for days in order to show her husband their child one last time. He, a newly-recruited soldier, was probably dead already, too.

The sense of lost wonder - what kind of bomb was it? - was bewilderment in its truest description. Rumors abounded about paratroopers following the explosions, of gasoline sprinkled over the city then lit by incendiary bombs, and more. In a way, the fear of what came next mirrored the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, when trigger-happy American antiaircraft crews shot at their own planes. Some Japanese spoke with absolute authority; they knew what the bomb was. Others simply listened, the topic way over their heads.

The tale is utterly humanizing, in the sense that it takes us to ground zero of the enemy's worst day, and forces us to understand that their every day lives were not much different from ours. We are left to wonder, how would Los Angeles have done in the same situation, or Chicago? What if 10,000 wounded and sick Americans tried to find help at a 600-bed hospital? What if 100,000 of your closest friends were suddenly gone? What would you do if you found the silhouette of your uncle burned into a granite slab near the spot of impact, a permanent ghostly reminder of his last act?

This book has long been touted as one that everyone should read. I cannot disagree.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen


Why I Read It: History of any kind is always a potential read, and the 1920s are certainly an area worth wading through.

Summary: A narrative history of the 1920s.

My Thoughts: There are those books that come along once in a while that simply make you feel unworthy. I don't think I'm qualified to review this book, but I'm going to do it anyway.

The book starts in the waning days of World War I. We walked through the next decade with the author, alongside the presidents, from the red scare, to Charles Lindbergh, through the murder trials, the flagpole sitters, the biggest scandals. What I find most remarkable is how the author was able, in such a quick turnaround, to recognize the trends of the decade and report on them from the early days of the 1930s.

But he doesn't just report on them. He narrates them like they're a poem. He takes us up and down the knees of the young women of the 20s, right along with their fashion-dictated skirt lengths. He takes us up into the big bull market and brings us crashing down. He introduces us to H.L. Mencken, teaches us to love him and hate them at the same time. He picks up on the malaise of the '20s, an era we look back to as "roaring." There were high times, yes. There was a reason The Great Gatsby was produced during this time. He educates us on our America was really prepared for Prohibition, how most people even thought it was a good idea. And then he explains how it led to open gunfights in the streets of Chicago. We see the causes, we see the effects. We better understand how the 1930s began, and how our world of today was shaped.

If there was one literary tool I thought the author misfired on, it was not utilizing the wonderful picture he drew at the beginning of the book with a juxtaposed ending. We meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Middletown, Anywhere, USA, and join them at the beginning of the decade. We learn what they eat. We learn what they look for when they pick up a newspaper. We learn about what their daily lives are like. Bringing the book to a close in a similar fashion would've been a wonderful reading experience. Perhaps though, considering how the book ends, with the stock market crash, it simply wasn't a good idea.

And there are those funny twists of history, that make such a book such a beautiful snapshot in time. As the book ends, Charles Lindbergh is still a hero. He has married Ann Morrow, but there is no mention of a baby or a kidnapping. Lindbergh hasn't returned from Germany telling us all that the Nazis aren't all that bad. The moment of perspective makes the book. The title is perfect. When Frederick Lewis Allen was writing his epic history of the 1920s, to him it was only yesterday.

I read an old dusty paperback version of this book. I kind of wish I had a hardcover copy, one that I could pass on to my boys. The first time they get into their history studies and tell me it's boring, I plan to pull out this book and read excerpts to them to prove that no subjects are boring, only writers can be. The right author, like Allen, can make history seem not only like it was just yesterday, but that it was right here in front of you.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood by Terry Masear




Why I Read It: An Amazon Vine opportunity; I've actually been in on the capture and banding of two extralimital hummingbirds on the South Shore of Boston (one Allen's, one Rufous).

Summary: An ordinary, everyday American citizen transforms into a full blown hummingbird hero.

My Thoughts: Like many other pursuits, hummingbird rescue and rehab on the West Coast is one of those "be careful what you wish for" propositions. The author begged to get into the world, and now can't get out (not that she's hinting that she wants to). The responsibilities, once accepted, are far too great to just step away. Too many lives hang in the balance. If she truly feels how she says she does about hummingbirds, then she knows she is in this for life, hers and theirs.

The author starts simply, finding an injured bird and bringing it to a rehabber, volunteering to help. She soon starts her own rehab center, and before she knows it her summer life is altered with job changes, the inability to take vacations - or even leave the house for 30 minutes - and quick trips to the market to purchase as many rotting bananas as she can find. Hummingbirds specialize in catching the fruit flies that find the bananas.

Ultimately, she picks up the jadedness many people working with wildlife get when forced to interact with the general public. She has to give the same educational lessons over and over again, and will ad infinitum, as there will always be another person calling in who either has done something wrong, ignorant of what is right simply because s/he didn't know, or that is so wrapped up in self that s/he decides that despite the admonitions of the trained rehabber, their way is just better. Alternately she is occasionally buoyed by the odd individual who will go above and beyond, sometimes literally, to rebuild or replace a fallen hummingbird nest.

One of the storylines in the book is the return of a previously injured bird, four years after first encountered. Strangely, if not for a quirk of the rehabbers trade - many of them don't, according to the author, band the birds - it wouldn't have been much of a tale. Banders attach small rings around the legs of birds with numbers on them that are stored in a central database; when a bird is found it tells a lot about the individual's movement. In this way, one bird can tell a lot about its entire species. Anyway, because the bird in question had such obvious markings, it was easy to make the identification the second time, after the L.A. road grime that coated it was washed away; but had she banded it in the first place, the author would have recognized it right away.

The book is a testament to the great lengths to which people will go to help wildlife, and in that sense, it is heartwarming, when we consider how much people do to harm wildlife, either directly or indirectly, through money-grabbing development of precious habitat or the use of products that place toxins in the environment. The author carries us through just one season of hummingbird rescue in the greater Los Angeles area. For her, there is much more to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes




Why I Read It: I was a teen when the movie came out, had read the Goldman book on which it was based, and was simply immersed.

Summary: Cary Elwes (Westley/The Man in Black) recounts, spurred by the 25th anniversary of the release of the movie, the flubs, outtakes, laughs and more.

My Thoughts: Cary Elwes never wanted the filming of the movie to end, and so it goes with those of us who love the film. In all, we got an hour and a half of this mythos, the place where the border nations of Guilder and Florin are at odds, where Spaniards, Sicilians and giants last seen in Greenland work together in temporary harmony and where the Dread Pirate Roberts goes on and on pillaging, seemingly defying aging and time. We wanted more.

This book, 25 years later, gives us an extension (reading the William Goldman novel adds more, and YouTube has some interesting material as well). We are allowed back into the story. We are free to read aloud the lines we all know anyway in concert with Elwes as he uses them to set scenes. We get not only the voice of Elwes but of the director (Rob Reiner) and many of the actors, in constant sidebar quotes throughout the book. Only a few are gone - Andre the Giant, Mel Smith, Peter Falk - but the rest remember the entire experience lovingly. In fact, it seems almost too perfect, as Elwes doesn't have a bad word for anybody. This is a very positive book from cover to cover.

There are some interesting revelations as far as the personalities go. Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) not only had a truly "dizzying intellect" off screen, he was also seemingly ridiculously nervous about losing his part, so badly so that he gave himself hives. William Goldman loved his book so much that he couldn't bear to watch most of it being filmed. And then there was Elwes' broken toe. After reading this book, you will never watch the movie the same way again, if just because you'll be looking for the ramifications of that injury as they were captured on film. You'll also be looking for a prop from This is Spinal Tap that appears in the background because Mark Knopfler asked for it to be there.

We get to wonder about the alternatives. What if, as proposed in an earlier attempt at filming the movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger played Fezzik? Or Mel Brooks was Miracle Max? Or Danny DeVito played Vizzini? Or Michael Palin was the Impressive Clergyman? It might have been a very different world.

So there is no dirt, but then, I was hoping there would not be, to tell you the truth. For a few more hours I got a chance to live in that world again. And if Goldman ever finishes Buttercup's Baby, the follow-up novel, we get more, but he's not sure he ever will.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top by Seth Mnookin





Why I Read It: The time had come; the book had been around since 2006, and I've been a Red Sox fan since 1975.

Summary: An embedded writer's view of the 2002 to 2005 arc of the life of the Boston Red Sox, including the building and crashing of the 2004 World Series champions.

My Thoughts: My initial gut reaction to the book told me that this book was going to be heavily pro-management, but I let it ride. The book opens with a history of the Red Sox and then profiles of the big three owner/executives - John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino - before getting into the story of the world championship.

The beauty of a book like this, in which somebody spends the time to look deeply into the details of a story that unfolded right before our eyes is that the layers are exposed. As a thirty-something American male, I was deeply ensconced in my work and social lives at the time; I caught the general flow of information out of Fenway Park, and probably knew more than the average Bostonian, being a devotee of sports radio. But it would be impossible, in my situation, to know every detail of every story related to the 2004 World Series champs, especially since much of what is in this book was published for the first time in its pages. (For example, I had no idea owner Tom Werner had a ticket on Flight 11 on September 11, 2001, but, because a meeting got out early, he flew out early; or that a Red Sox pitcher was caught cheating with a Northeastern student when she posted a picture of them cuddling in a dorm on a social media site). The depth of the research and then the reflective nature of the interviews Mnookin conducted in the aftermath make for a fantastic combination.

Still, as I  read, I couldn't help but feel a bias forming. Perhaps it simply was, as Mnookin professed it would be, the truth. He and Henry agreed that the book would not be slanted in any way, but in the end Henry comes off as the most likable individual in the story. Many players and even other journalists are given negative personae through the tone in which they are presented, but, again, we get the softened, filtered version through our regular media. Mnookin had as close a seat to the action as anyone will ever have. If you read this book, expect to have some heroic facades (as heroic as we make our athletes out to be) crumble. Expect, too, to do some self-reflection, if you are a Boston sports fan.

The book culminates not with the Sox defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in October of 2004 (I was in Norfolk, Virginia, when it happened; where were you?), but with the schism between Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein and then the tenuous rebuilding of their relationship. And it's funny knowing the future beyond the book. This tale ends in 2005, projecting 2006. In 2007, the Sox won it all again. I wonder if Mnookin felt a twinge of regret, that perhaps an opportunity had been missed. But then, who can predict baseball futures? Bill James?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis





Why I Read It: Reading the series with my kindergartner as "chapter books."

Summary: Four children in World War II London are hustled out of the city and into the home of an elderly man, where they find a magical wardrobe.

My Thoughts: Perhaps it's just the struggling dad in me, trying to find the next great great story to tell, but it seems the concept comes naturally. A child peeks into something and finds another world. For us, it's been everything from a glass of milk to an imaginary tube in the vernal pool behind our house. Of course, since my little guy's world is populated with pop culture characters, the tube leads to Mario and Luigi, and the world on the other side of the glass of milk was Minecraft.

But those worlds just got him warmed up for Narnia. While there was a language barrier to hurdle (quickly changing "Father Christmas" to "Santa," for instance; yes, he makes an appearance in the book), the story is action-packed enough to be fun for his little mind. Even just the concept of swords, shields and potions of healing get him thinking. Powerful talking lions and evil witches just add to the fun.

A few things went over his head, like the concept of the non-passage of time, like when the children emerge from the wardrobe after what felt like years inside, only to find that they had not aged at all. But the basic concept of good and evil is there, of triumph over adversity. I hope he is having enough fun to consider reading them again in the future. I'll be sure the books are packed away so that he can.

For some reason, I had never read these books before, so it's an exploration for me, too. I was certainly a fantasy and Sci-Fi geek as a kid, but perhaps I just discovered Lewis a bit too late. I'm glad I'm getting the chance to relive a little of my childhood for the first time, sharing it with my son.

The Predator Paradox: Ending the War With Wolves, Bears, Cougars and Coyotes by John Shivik




Why I Read It: Full-time job is as a naturalist.

Summary: The author tries to find the bridge between the loss of livestock and the wholesale retaliatory slaughter of apex predators.

My Thoughts: This book boils down to one pertinent fact.

When we consider the depredations of the country's top natural predators on livestock, on people and on pets, etc., oftentimes our reaction is to make a big sweeping move. Wolves killing sheep? Kill all the local wolves. Grizzly bears attacking campers and hikers? Kill all the bears. But we know the domino system will be in effect.

If we kill the top predator, its main wild prey can run rampant. Kill all the hammerhead sharks and we'll be overwhelmed on our beaches by overabundant stingrays. With no natural predators in Massachusetts, where I live, white-tailed deer have become a nuisance species, spreading Lyme disease and devouring forest floor habitats, not to mention the front yard tulips.

But, Shivik argues, supported by the numerous ongoing experiments he covers in this book, even just destroying the local population of predators is the wrong way to go. We tend to think that each and every wolf is the same as the next one; if one wolf is a sheep killer, they all are. But we are finding that, just like us, there is individual variation in the way of personalities in the world of our biggest mammalian predators. Oftentimes innocent bystanders are being picked off in the war against them.

But how do we know who is a sheep killer and who is not? And are there ways that we can train wild predators to shy away from the desire to take livestock? Shivik walks us through the thought process. Can we give visual or olfactory reasons not to kill? Will a distasteful scent tip a bear off that attacking a hiker might be an unpleasant experience?

One way or another, the author argues, we have to stop the war, lest we interminably damage the balance in the ecosystem (more than we already have). Yes, we have questions of economies to consider; we can't let our livestock producers live with constant losses. But we also can't let the wild world down, either.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells





Why I Read It: Whim. Was scanning through my Kindle for something "new."

Summary: A doctor-turned-physicist discovers the secret of human invisibility (it has to do with light refraction) and goes on a naked, invisible rampage.

My Thoughts: For it's time, it must have been quite the sensation. Wells certainly had the touch.

I think for me, though, there was a lot of baseline comedy that made the book even more enjoyable. Let's face it - the story is more than 100 years old and has been done to death in movies, etc. (My favorite spoof was with Ed Begley, Jr., in Amazon Women on the Moon). The concept is not as shocking as it once was.

Then there's the setting, late small-town Victorian England, the land of pubs. Everybody has an overwritten accent, every person a classic caricature to today's reader. And there's even a Monty Python moment. When the Invisible Man, who we come to know as Griffin, meets the wanderer Mr. Thomas Marvel for the first time, he gets frustrated by Marvel's noncommittal stance on aiding him. The Invisible Man ultimately says that if Marvel doesn't help him, he will throw flints at him until he acquiesces. This sort of minor punishment just struck me as reminiscent of a famous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Very well. If you do not appease us, we will say 'Ni' to you."

The pace of this book is excellent, making it a true thriller. Even during the lengthy conversation between Griffin and his college contemporary, Kemp, the story moves. The beauty of the concept is that being invisible, Griffin can (ironically) appear in the book at any time, leaving that constant air of mystery when any other characters are conversing without him. There are exceptions, of course. When he eats, food must assimilate into his system; Marvel asks him when he first meets him whether or not he's recently eaten bread and cheese. When it rains, mud outlines his bare feet, and two young boys watch his feet run down the street.

I think we are left with the ultimate question of "did the process of becoming invisible make him go crazy, was it the realization afterward that his life had forever been altered, or was he a loony before this all happened (perhaps explaining why he did this to himself in the first place)?" The guy is bordering on pure evil. He plans a reign of terror. He murders. He steals. He wantonly hurts others for what seems like fun.

The fact is, though, that if he was not nuts, the book would have gone nowhere. Had he been a proper late Victorian British gentleman, the tale would have been boring as hell. Wells chose his character well, giving him delusions of despotism.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach




Why I Read It: I think I was hooked on the concept of the author's series-like titles (Stiff, Gulp, Bonk, Spooked...), though they're just so named for marketing purposes, really. But I'm always up for a new science title.

Summary: A million ways to be used after you die.

My Thoughts: The underlying message the author is trying to get across is that if your body is "donated to science" it doesn't mean that it'll end up as a skeleton hanging in a classroom. It's not a cautionary tale, though, but a journey - through blood, guts, bones, brain matter, etc. - through the realities of today's various forms of cadaveric research.

It really is amazing how many ways human cadavers are used in this country alone, especially when one considers our general squeamishness, and our still somewhat Puritanical thoughts on the sanctity of the entire body as the vessel of the soul. The Swedes are experimenting with turning people into fertilizers (could have happened by now, the book was 12 years old when I read it). Several countries have spoken to an American doctor who successfully transplanted monkey heads onto other monkey bodies, and thinks he can do so for human heads (onto other human bodies, of course).

The author attacks the story with humor, which, of course, was the only way to do it. There's fatalism ingrained in us now, in ways we never had it before. We can at least mildly joke about the idea and the utterly unavoidable finality of death, if not about death of specific people around the time they die. It certainly helps balance out the goriness and gruesomeness of the details of human decapitated cadaver heads being used as stand-ins for...well, living human heads in plastic surgery training classes.

Toward that end, that's one of the earliest questions posed in this book. When someone checks off "donate my body to science," is it fair for them to end up as body-less cosmetic surgery mannequins? or crash test dummies? In the case of the former, I say, sure. Just give them free face lifts for life. Throw some perks at them.

Another question is, should we know? And by we, I mean friends and family. Should we have any inside information as to how the body of a deceased loved one is used? Should we be privy to the dissection at the medical school? Should we see the body decomposing at a cadaver farm? Should we know that the body of Uncle Frank was struck in the clavicle by a machine replicating a car/pedestrian accident?

The book is not for the faint of stomach, but I will say that it is, scientifically, one of the most fascinating tomes I've ever read. Good books make you think, and boy, do I have some thinking to do.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard



Why I Read It: Had to remember how they laid out the whole lunar eclipse thing, having read it in college.

Summary: An adventurer joins a party looking for a man lost in Africa, and ends up wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but only after much, much more adventure!

My Thoughts: So, we have to put ourselves in 1885 when we read this book. Cool. I dig mental time travel. I can do that.

We have to not only take with a grain of salt the simplicity of the tale compared with today's standards, we have to also live with the fact that this was a man's adventure. Although Allen Quatermain, our hero, from time to time surprises us with a slightly open view of the world (hinting that he would accept a mixed black/white relationship while the rest of the world might not be ready for it), there are no women involved in the story as far as the main effort goes. There are witches, there is Gagool, and there are young handmaidens of the fairest kind, but there is no heroine.

We also have to remember the excitement the "opening" of Africa meant in the 19th century. We have to remember that popular adventure fiction was generally young. In fact, this book kicked off the "Lost World" genre. Suspension of disbelief was in its infancy in the English-speaking nations (though I would say that anybody who had their hands on a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from 1818 was probably already in practice).

So what sticks today? The names, for one. What a fantastic job by Haggard! "Allen Quatermain" sounds like a man wearing cargo shorts and a pith helmet. Sir Henry and Captain Good as companions round out the British trio. They may as well have been in the opening scene of a Commander McBragg cartoon ("Quite.") Umbopa becomes Ignosi, the names of the man who returns to become king of Kukuanaland (all great names!), and the evil witch doctoress Gagool, well, doesn't it just send shivers right up your spine? The only name of which I wasn't really enamored was Twala, the reigning king, who just didn't seem evil enough, but his son more than makes up for it. Would you trust someone named Scragga?

Then, there is the total manliness of the story: plunging headlong into the journey knowing it would end on the death of all three; survival against all odds; donning ancient chain mail to participate in an epic battle that reshapes the world of the Kukuanas; the overthrow and installation of kings; the search for the treasure; the blatant use of sexual imagery (pointing to two distant mountains and calling them Sheba's Breasts, then charging into a cave at the base of them); the dramatic manner in which two of the three native guides die; the ruse of pretending to be from the stars, and happening to be in the exact right place for viewing a total lunar eclipse when you're in need of a sign of your other-worldliness; being trapped by Gagool in the mines, getting down to a single ignitable match, then finding your way out in the darkness; I could go on. About halfway through the story you just learn that anything is possible.

Man, do I love this story. It's so deep that I don't think I'll bother to ever watch a movie rendition. Why ruin it?

Gilgamesh, A Verse Narrative by Herbert Mason



Why I Read It: Flashback to 5th grade; I'll explain.

Summary: The epic story of the hero Gilgamesh, as told in this one man's translation.

My Thoughts: Yes, 5th grade. Mr. McSweeney read the narrative (a narrative; for some reason I assume that it was this one) to us as a group, as part of our social studies exploration of the cradle of civilization, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You know, the Fertile Crescent. It's amazing how much has stuck with me since that time.

Anyway, I have vivid memories of the reading, because one of my classmates, a true goofball if there ever was one, stood at the front of the class and acted out the narration. Every time Mr. McSweeney read the word "Humbaba," the name of the early enemy of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, my classmate would furrow his brow, suck in all the air he could, move his shoulders up and out in the "I'm HUGE!" pose and stomp clumsily around the room. And so, recently, while cataloging my book collection, I came across a paperback copy of the Mason narrative, which I probably purchased more than a decade ago with the intent of reading through the entire story, refreshing my 9-year-old experiences. It took until 2015 (I was in 5th grade in 1980-81) but here we are.

There is so much about this story that is simply amazing, and I mean that in the sincerest way. Consider the age of it. Sorry, trick question - we don't know how old it is. What we do know is that the story is timeless, a theme that carries through the ages and relates from the ancient Mesopotamians to today. That, in itself, is worthy of an "amazing" in my eyes.

But take the second piece, that the text wasn't even found until the mid-1800s, on tablets, and the story appeared only in fragments at that time. Parts had to be chased around the world from other sources to make it all come together, and in the end, it came to this one man - a Massachusetts man, I might add (proudly) - to create the beautifully flowing epic narrative that I have just read.

This story was saved. What has been lost?

The transformation of Gilgamesh is invigorating, and then heartrending, from hated ruler to beloved friend, to sorrowful and vulnerable man. He, as a part-god, faces death for the first time in his life when Enkidu is taken from him. It haunts him, causing him to go to the ends of the earth for answers, first, for how to get Enkidu back, and then for why he can't. This is pre-U.S. sitcoms. There is no happy ending. We are left with his despair, and it stings.

One odd note that struck me during the reading was the mention of Uruk, an important city of Sumer and Babylonia, ruled at one time by Gilgamesh. Tolkien's nastiest orcs are called Uruk-hai; a tribute to the Gilgamesh? It would be interesting to go back and peek into his mind. He could have intended it for their fierceness as warriors, but I am totally conjecturing.

Finally, I think I'm learning that I love epics. Beowulf is still my all-time favorite, but Gilgamesh pulled at my heart. I think I need to read a few more.